Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rhetoric of Disruption

I've done it. Twice.

Okay, they weren't pre-adoptive placements, and one wasn't even officially a permanent placement. Oddly though, the one that wasn't the permanent placement was the one that I most hoped would be permanent -- or at least was more emotionally invested in. The one that was supposed to be a permanent placement, on paper, was the one where we were all saying, "This kid deserves a chance to make it in a home. He might not be able to, but Yondalla and Roland can give him the best chance."

But whatever the circumstances, there are two foster kids out there who have a long list of places they have lived. They have hoped, or tried to hope, that this move would be the last. They have wondered if I would be the mom who would stick with them, and I wasn't. It is entirely possible that someday someone will look at their file and say, "How could all these people do this to a child? Kids are not puppies from a pound. You don't get to take them home and try them out and then send them back because they are not perfect." And I will be on that list they are shaking their heads over.

When I hear about kids who have been moved a lot, who have experienced disruption after disruption, I have a different take on it than most people. We come across these stories in news sources. Sometimes it is a story about foster care; sometimes it is a story about a particular person who has done something horrible. And we hear the typical rhetoric.

And I think, "Maybe the youth doesn't have all these problems because he or she was moved, maybe the child was moved because his or her problems were just too difficult to be handled in a home."

I'm not denying that there are people who become foster parents* without seriously thinking about what they can handle. I'm not denying that there are abusive foster parents, or even some foster parents are callous and give up on kids when they shouldn't.

It is just that I personally don't know of many.

See, I work with those kids. Carl had three foster families in less than two years when he moved in with me. David had at least six. I was only the second stop for Evan the second time he came into the system (group shelter home then here), but he can't remember just how many places he had been when he was in care for a few years around junior high. He guesses maybe twelve. Ann had been lucky. She was in just two places (I think) before she ended up with Mandy, where she lived for seven years. Of course after she left Mandy she averaged a placement every four months or so. And Frankie has never stayed in a foster home for more than about three months, though he has made it for 6 months in residential treatment centers (and left there because he was supposed to be ready to live somewhere else).

The kids I have had for respite or met at agency functions generally have long histories of disruptions. They have been in and out of homes, residential facilities, detention.

It is simply false that had one of their foster parents simply decided to keep them that everything would have been better. It just isn't that simple. It would be nice if it were. Though there are simple and horrible cases, I don't think they are the typical case.

I think the most typical case is that a child is placed with a family who does not have the capacity to properly care for him or her. That lack of capacity can happen in different ways. It can be that a child requires 24/7 supervision. It could be that two children are not safe with each other. Please understand I am not blaming the kids. They are not getting moved because they are bad. They are getting moved because they are hurt and they are not getting the help they need. It is as though we keep taking critically ill patients to walk-in clinics and wondering why they don't get better.

Foster parents are not adequately trained and prepared. Of course, it is impossible to adequately train and prepare us, because frankly we don't learn from what we are
told. In our defense, no one else does either. You simply cannot know what you can do until you try. Will this storm be the sort of thing you can ride like a surfer does a wave? Or will it be the sort that pounds you into sand leaving you half-dead on the shore?

I do believe that something is going very wrong when a child is moved from place to place. What is going wrong though is not necessarily that a series of foster parents are giving up on something they are able to do. Fixing the problem of to many placements will not be easy. We will have to figure out what kids really need and then provide it, instead of hoping that the kids can get by on what the system already has to offer. I suspect we would need to have a wider variety of types of homes and treatment centers. And foster parents should get not just more training, but more mentoring from other foster families.

In my limited experience, the disrupted placements rarely happen because some naive family thought it was going to be easy and just gave up. Oh, there are certainly those cases and some of them even make the news. Most of the time though it was something else both simple and complex: this child's needs surpassed this family's resources.

And we need to stop saying of parents who disrupt a placement, "Didn't they know what it was going to be like?"

Because the answer is always, "No. They didn't. And neither do you."

*Some of what I say may of course apply to adopters. Maybe all of it. I am really going to try to stick to my own turf this time though.


  1. We had the disruption. Our almost-son had been in and out of foster homes for more than half of his life. After he left our home, he went to another home and disrupted there. Then he went to another home -- a home I truly thought he'd blow out of within days -- and we attended his finalization last month.

    His forever family has been phenomenal with him. Where I thought he'd walk all over them, whatever they are doing has worked. He's blossoming and reaching all the potential we all saw within him; he just needed to be with the right family.

    Likewise, our children came from a disrupted adoption placement. The family prior could not handle their needs sufficiently. We could. Everyone has different limits and until you have pushed those limits, you really never know what you can do.

    Your comment -- And we need to stop saying of parents who disrupt a placement, "Didn't they know what it was going to be like?"

    Because the answer is always, "No. They didn't. And neither do you." -- is absolutely dead on.

  2. Thank you for writing this. My biggest worry about foster/adopting older kids, especially as a single parent, is that I will get in over my head. What if I take in a child and then realize that either (a) I can't effectively parent this child or (b)the only way I could effectively parent this child is to give up everything else in my life (work, hobbies, friends, etc)? I know there are parents who do that (give everything up), but I am fairly certain I wouldn't be happy in that situation. And while I've done quite a bit of reading/research, and I would certainly go into this with open eyes, our ability to predict which children will succeed and which ones will struggle is definitely limited. So do I decide not to do care at all if I'm not willing to commit my entire life to it? Or do I take a deep breath and jump in, knowing that it could be me those people are talking about someday, questioning why I bothered to take in a child if I wasn't fully committed?

  3. This is a great post, Yondalla. While I have never experienced one myself, I think I get why they happen.

    I do have an issue with disrupting adoptive placements, but I think it's more to do with the semantic baggage attached. Personally, I don't think pre-adoptive placements should exist. I don't think anyone in a situation (foster parents, caseworkers and most importantly of all, children) should expect a placement to be a pre-adoption until those same parties have been living with the situation and are absolutely sure an adoption is going to happen. It may be different in other places but it's my observation that the term pre-adoptive is translated loosely to "trial period" which I think, is a more appropriate match with foster placement than with adoption.

    I think kids, especially older kids, get the difference between a foster placement and an adoptive placement and I think it's much more traumatic to have an adoptive placement go south.

    But maybe this semantic difference isn't that big a deal in reality? It just feels a lot different to me.

  4. Yet another great post that speaks to my heart Yondalla.

    I've been one of those people that asked "Didn't they know?" and if there is only one thing I've learned as a parent it is that this is SOOOO much harder that I could have ever conceived.

  5. I've been the one saying those things too, Fostermama.

    I think we all have. It is just so hard to imagine oneself asking for a child to be removed. It is the sort of thing we need to believe that we would never do.


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